Commencement Address To Converse College Class of 2009

Commencement Address To Converse College Class of 2009

CONVERSE COLLEGE COMMENCEMENT
by Cecilia Boone

May 16, 2009

 

Thank you and Acknowledgments:

Dr. Fleming

Faculty and Staff

Graduates, guests and particularly parents

 

I have been to 4 conferences in the last two weeks and one thing that I have learned is that it’s OK for speakers to give a “shout out” to people.  I would like to give a shout out to you parents of today’s graduates.  I have been in your seat 3 times, and I know how full your hearts are.

 

It is such an honor to be in this room with you today sharing in the celebration that, for many of you, will mark a change in the direction of your lives.  To have the opportunity to speak to you on this day of such importance is an enormous honor and an enormous responsibility – even if no one ever remembers their commencement address.

 

When Dr. Fleming first contacted me about speaking to you, my instinctive reaction was, “Oh, no, not me. What on earth would I have to say?  Let me help you re-think this.”

 

We will come back to that theme in a few minutes.  In the meantime, I am so glad that Dr. Fleming was unfazed by my initial reluctance.  I’m sure you know that she is quite persuasive and so I find myself with the incredible opportunity to speak in this room that is bursting with energy, competence and potential.

 

Because this is such a responsibility and I really wanted to do it right, I tried to find out what President Obama will say to the graduates of Notre Dame tomorrow, but I had no luck with that.  Someone told me that I should try to figure out what Chuck Norris would say, but I decided that wasn’t a great idea.  Finally, I decided just to depend on the two things that I know I can offer:  experience and the wisdom that comes with hindsight.

One of the lessons that I have learned is that lessons are never over.  When I was your age, I assumed my big decisions were in my fairly immediate future – where I would work, where I would live, who I would marry.  When those issues were decided, I suppose I thought I would coast the rest of the way.  The world has changed a lot since those days and I am sure that you are much less naïve than I was.  But just in case a flicker of that thought has crossed your mind, let me tell you to ALWAYS – even when you are older than dirt – ALWAYS keep yourself open to possibility.

 

I don’t really like talking about myself and I don’t intend to that that much, but the truth is, I don’t know anybody else’s story as well as I do my own.

 

I graduated from a girls’ high school in Bardstown Ky in a class of 27.  Four years later I graduated from Spring Hill College in Mobile, AL.  I don’t really remember how large my graduating class was, but I think Converse, in comparison, is huge.  Who would ever have guessed that my life would unfold in such a way that I would eventually be asked to speak at a college commencement?

 

For the first 20 years of my life, my interests were similar to yours, I expect:  education and growing up.  For the next 20 years I focused on career and family.  It wasn’t until I was 40 did gender equity really rise to the surface.  I was interested earlier, but it wasn’t a factor in anything I did every day or even every year.  At this stage of my life, it’s my passion.  Other than family, it’s the biggest thing I do and since my adult children no longer appreciate me arranging play dates, it is clearly how I spend most of my time.

 

My advice from that?  Be prepared to be nimble – not just for the next 5 years, but for the next 70.  Keep yourself open to opportunity.  Be prepared to reinvent yourself more than once.

I have warned you that gender equity is my passion.  I am sure – goodness, I hope I’m sure – that you have learned a lot about this subject at Converse.

 

Feminism as some of us knew it in the 70’s and 80’s accomplished a lot, but its time is over and as a society we have moved on in many ways.  Women aren’t burning their bras anymore – we’ve learned we need all the support we can get.

 

I’m sure everyone in this room knows that on average women in America make .78 for every dollar that a man makes.  But did you know that in a lifetime of work, a woman with a bachelors degree earns the same as a man with a high school diploma.  A woman with a masters degree earns the same as a man with a bachelors.

 

This is you we are talking about and it is your generation that needs to figure out how to fix it.

 

I can tell you from personal experience what part of the problem is.  At the beginning of these remarks I mentioned that my first response to this opportunity to speak to you today was, “Not me – what would I have to offer.”

 

This is such a girlie response – and at my age, that is just pathetic.

 

So as you begin your next phase of life, be on guard against this most insidious form of discrimination: self-discrimination.   As women, many of us step back from recognition and from power.  We step up to responsibility but we step away from acknowledging and using the power that should come with it.

 

We are inclined as a gender to wait to be recognized and acknowledged for our good work and accomplishments.  We have to help each other get over that.  What is holding us back?  What is holding me back?  We can’t wait to be offered equity.  If it hasn’t happened yet, it’s not going to happen on its own.

 

Girl Scouts USA recently did a study that showed that girls are not interested in leadership – at least not as it is traditionally know as “power over”.  What women are exceptionally good at is “power with.”  We excel at collaborative leadership that encompasses more than one view.

 

In surveys done at Brown University, of equally qualified men and women, women are significantly less likely than men to view themselves as qualified to run for public office.  In fact, men are 71% more likely to actually run for office than equally qualified women because the model for political power has been “power over.”  However, when women do run for office, they are equally likely to be elected AND their leadership shifts public policy and spending.  In state legislatures where the number of women has increased, funds for public education and public health have increased while funds for prisons have decreased.  That is “power with” instead of “power over” at work.

 

This is a new model, and yours will be the generation that sees it happen.

 

Nicholas Kristof, a columnist for the New York Times recently wrote: “At the recent World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, some of the most interesting discussions revolved around whether we would be in the same mess today if Lehman Brothers had been Lehman Sisters.  The consensus (and this is among the dead white men who parade annually at Davos) is that the optimal bank would have been Lehman Brothers and Sisters.”

 

What the dead white men at Davos have recognized is that when the group that sits at the table where decisions are made is made up of men and women, better decisions are made.  The balance between risk-tolererance and risk-aversion makes for a healthier economy and a healthier world.  In the words of Lu Hong and Scott E. Page in The Journal of Economic Theory, “There seems to be a strong consensus that diverse groups perform better at problem solving” than homogeneous groups.

 

However, just because The Journal of Economic Theory recognizes this, doesn’t mean that the bastions of American business – or politics or education – are ready to welcome you to the table.  That is why it is so important that we don’t begin by shooting ourselves in the foot.  Don’t let yourself be the one who says “Who, me??  Oh no, I couldn’t possibly…”  Don’t be me – in this one regard, don’t be ‘girlie.’  Be bold and help each other be bold.

 

Of course at this time in economic history, it’s just possible that for many of you, finding a job is your priority.

 

There is no question that these are very difficult economic times.  Life is hard now for many.  But there is at least one good consequence of that: not as many of our best and brightest are rushing into jobs where the greatest allure is outrageous amounts of money.  Not to diminish the difficult times, but it is reassuring to think that our best minds will find ways to contribute to our world beyond moving numbers around on a spreadsheet.

 

We have all heard the expression that money can’t buy happiness, but that is not how we have been conducting ourselves.  Extravagant economic times have led us to equate success with money and money with happiness.  Of course, Wall Street was the pinnacle of this kind of thinking, but it happened on many other levels as well; levels that are closer to home for many of us.

 

It is easy to measure our worth, or someone else’s, by the amount of ‘stuff’ we have accumulated.  Stuff is easy to see, easy to measure and on top of that, accumulating it is a lot of fun – for a very short time.  New shoes, new dress, new car, new place to live – how much fun it is to find them, how much fun to wear them for the first time or two.  But how quickly the bloom falls off that rose.  How quickly there are new shoes to want.  Acquiring new things is a fleeting pleasure but an insatiable desire – there is always something else better, brighter, shinier, more alluring calling to us – and it will always fail to satisfy our hearts.

 

I am certainly not here hoping that you all find low-paying jobs so that you won’t be victims of consumerism.  Not at all.  But I do hope that you each find work that feeds your soul as amply as it does your wallet.

 

Meaningful and long-lasting satisfaction in life comes from being engaged and invested in work, in relationships and in communities.  It comes from accepting the responsibility to shape the environment in which you find yourself instead of letting it happen around you.

 

So I don’t mourn for you the loss of the investment banker jobs and life style.  I hope for you something much richer: a career that allows you to stay in touch with your heart and with your best instincts.

 

If I had a glass and if it were not so early in the day, I would raise it to you:

 

I hope that you have the courage and the opportunity to reinvent yourself repeatedly and always as wiser.

 

I wish for you not just responsibility but also confidence and boldness in your own abilities.  With that you will assume the “power-with” that it takes to make this a better world.

 

I hope that you are really, really rich.  I also hope that you have money.

 

I wish for you along with financial success a generous, giving heart.

 

I wish for you, not happiness, but  meaningful work and relationships and that through them you will find happiness.